Christian Focus Publications has a well-earned and valued reputation for publishing books that they think should or could usefully be read, rather than simply making cold economic decisions about what they think is most likely to be snaffled up. This approach includes republication of valuable, previously out-of-print works, and the commission of new material such as this book, ‘Basil of Caesarea’ by Marvin Jones – one of a new series about the Early Church Fathers (“early Christian authors who wrote between the close of the first century…and the middle of the eighth century…”; Michael Haykin, from the Series Preface).
As someone who has an interest in history and a desire to know more about Christian and church history, this is a book and a series that appeals to me. After all, you wouldn’t recommend a book like this to someone who is yet to be introduced to church history because there would be too few frames of reference to make sense of it. I wasn’t expecting a narrative roller-coaster, or anything eye-poppingly surprising – just a little more filling of the gap, some greater insight into how we got to the middle ages from Jesus’ time, that would make more sense of what took place in the pre-Reformation era. I also figured it might help motivate me into a more in-depth look at the early church and ‘dark ages’ of the first millenium.
The book gets off to a rocky start for me though, as on the strength of the above somewhat general and underwhelming definition of early Church Fathers quoted above, Haykin immediately complains in his Series Preface that “Far too many Evangelicals in the modern day know next to nothing about these figures…I suspect that such ignorance is quite widespread among those who call themselves Evangelicals – hence the importance of this small series of studies on a select number of Church Fathers, to educate and inform God’s people about their forbears in the faith”.
So here I am, having decided to read this book, being berated – or so it feels – for the fact that I haven’t already read about Basil of Caesarea. At best, the criticism seems ill-aimed. Haykin gives no reason why such Christians ought to already have such knowledge (presumably he believes that to be self-evident) – he doesn’t give any hint as to the importance of these particular forbears to help us understand how knowledge of them might be useful, whilst also seeming to call into question the right of people to call themselves Evangelical if Basil of Caesarea is not a familiar name to them. Unlike, apparently, in years past, when good Christians “knew and treasured the writings of the ancient church”. It’s one thing to complain about the arrogance of assuming that all things modern are superior to all things ancient (see CS Lewis on ‘chronological snobbery’), but it’s repeating the same error to suggest that we must read ancient things because…well…they’re ancient, which appears to be the reasoning we’re given here.
I’m going on about this because it really put me off the book, even though the author of the preface is not the author of this book. Paige Patterson’s Foreword to this volume I found far more instructional, and gave a good idea of what the value of its pages might be in giving valuable lessons and warnings to churches and individual Christians alike.
And the book itself is clearly valuable. It goes into some detail about controversies that raged in the first centuries about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in particular. Controversies in which Basil of Caesarea played a useful part in standing up for Biblical principles that were not always popular or widespread. And in his standing up for a focus on Biblical morality, we can be reassured that as godless as the current age seems, it is not the first time that previously ‘Christian’ nations have plunged headlong into self-idolising pursuits.
I like that the book is concise; tightly-packed, but concise. I like the little inserts with definitions of key words (even though on occasion they seem incomplete, such as when the ‘filioque’ definition, over which the church split in 1054, gives only one side of the debate).
I appreciate the author’s desire and ability to take lessons from 1,700 years ago and plant them in our everyday, though the leap from historical event to modern application was occasionally made with frustratingly little unpacking of the issues – inevitable perhaps when trying to keep the book readably short.
And yet I found the book somewhat hard going, in part because of it’s assumed knowledge. By way of illustration, here are the opening words of the book, with my comments interspersed:
“The year was AD372 and the political climate [what was it like?] of the region of Cappadocia [where’s that?] was such that a confrontation [between whom?] was imminent. Valens [who’s that?] had struck terror in the hearts of Nicene Orthodox [who are they?] pastors. He persecuted them, banished them, and even martyred some of them. In 372, his target was Caesarea [where’s that?]. Only one person stood in his way, a man of remarkable integrity, profound ministry accomplishments, and a man who, by his strong confidence in God, could defy the Emperor – Basil of Caesarea…The modern person may find it difficult to understand the dynamics of the problem. However, the issue of Arianism (to be discussed later) [no, tell me now or there may not be a later!] was at the forefront of a political and ecclesiastical agenda.”
The opening felt like I’d missed the introduction that wasn’t there, and I was a little lost by the end of the first page, and the book continued in my opinion to be caught slightly between the two stools of introducing Basil to people with little knowledge of the era, and going deeper for those with a good working knowledge of the times. Both I think can be done, without significantly expanding the book. Even a map, glossary and list of key characters at the end of the book would have helped significantly.
The structure of the book also had me somewhat confused. Most particularly when my Kindle version had me at 33% – a paragraph on ‘Continuing Theological Development’ – when suddenly, “Basil did not have a healthy body as he was ill most of the time…He died at the young age of 50…”. What?! How? Perhaps I could have seen that coming if the biography section was light on theology, but we had already been given linguistic details of the first Arian controversy on the nature of Christ, and suddenly Basil is dead and the rest of the book is organised into theological issues. The second Arian controversy is dealt with in one of those theological sections, whereas the book would be far easier to comprehend, in my opinion, if it had stuck to either a narrative flow (weaving both Arian controversies into it) or a theology-based approach to Basil’s life.
And yet, notwithstanding all of that, the book does achieve notable and important goals: reasons for humility about today’s Christianity, inspiration to live more clearly and directly for our Saviour, and warnings about how faith-destroying heresies can come from within the church. That these lessons come from a largely ignored portion of our history, make them all the more compelling. And for those reasons, I both recommend the book and look forward to the rest of the series, including the also newly-published ‘Patrick of Ireland’ by Michael Haykin.
I’ll just skip the Series Preface next time…
This review was provided for Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for a Kindle version of the book.